With Kyle Larson’s 39th-place finish at Kansas Speedway as well as his subsequent elimination from the NASCAR Playoffs, the stage is starting to be set for a possible underdog situation when the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami comes around.
Along with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, Larson and his No. 42 Chip Ganassi crew were dominantly consistent, winning four regular-season races and hanging near the front almost every race. This includes Kansas as well, prior to his engine failure at the end of Stage One.
Underdogs in the Championship Round have become commonplace since 2014 when a winless Ryan Newman almost crashed the party by finishing second to eventual champion Kevin Harvick. The next year a somewhat underperforming Jeff Gordon punched his ticket into Miami with a win at Martinsville, and eventually finished the night third in the final points. Carl Edward’s rain-soaked win at Texas prior to the Homestead finale gained him a spot in the Championship round before his title hopes were dashed with a late-race crash.
Which brings us to the 2017 finale, which is looming from a month away. Title contenders are dropping like they do every year (2017 – Larson, 2016 – Truex, 2015 – Logano, 2014 – Brad Keselowski). When that happens it opens the floodgates for championship hopefuls such as Chase Elliott, who is comfortably in the Round of Eight heading into Martinsville. Despite being winless he has performed with a quiet consistency much like his father’s. He’s proven himself strong on every type of track, which goes a long way toward his chances in the final four races. Ryan Blaney has also been quietly consistent; he hasn’t been tearing up the competition but he’s put together a quiet, Kenseth-esque performance that has kept him in sight of the leaders.
Other drivers such as Keselowski and Denny Hamlin could also crash the Homestead-Miami party. Keselowski’s Talladega win recently revived his crew heading into the Round of Eight, and considering he’s versatile enough to win anywhere, he could make an appearance in the Championship Round for the first time. Hamlin could make his second appearance; two wins this season and a string of top-10s at Charlotte, Talladega, and Kansas could turn into the right kind of momentum for that Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Although Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford hasn’t shown the kind of muscle that crew has been known for since 2014, they’ve been consistent enough to run with the leaders, notably Larson and Truex. He’s won at Martinsville, has always run strongly at Texas, is the winningest driver at Phoenix, and has won Homestead-Miami. The Toyota teams have been out of reach in comparison to the rest of the Ford and Chevy teams. But as Larson’s elimination goes to show, in the NASCAR Playoffs anything can happen.
Each driver in Playoff contention has utilized consistency to be in the right place at the right time to become championship threats. Truex and his No. 78 Toyota team have run away with the competition this year, but that’s not to say the championship is his already. If he keeps up with his winning ways he could very well be hoisting that championship trophy at season’s end, otherwise, Larson’s failure should serve to keep everyone else on their feet. The 2017 champion could truly be anybody’s title.